Maybe Lou Gehrig was the “White” Buck Leonard?

Most baseball historians rate Buck Leonard as the best first baseman in negro leagues history, and while he was called “The Black Lou Gehrig,” he may not have been quite on that level. Still, Buck was an Eddie Murray-type hitter, renowned as a clutch hitter. Legendary negro league pitcher Leon Day said that he would have rather faced Josh Gibson than Leonard with the game on the line.

R321-Helmar, card #40 featuring Homestead Grays teammates Buck Leonard, Sam Bankhead, Vic Harris, and George Scales.

Grew up poor in Tobacco country

Leonard was born as Walter Fenner Leonard, which is a perfectly nice name. He may have ended up as Wally Leonard, the home run champion (he led the league three times), or Wonderful Wally the batting champ (he won the batting crown his first year in the Negro National League in 1935), but as so often happens he got a nickname because a sibling couldn’t pronounce his name. Leonard’s parents called him “Buddy,” but his little brother mispronounced it “Bucky,” and well, you can guess the rest.

Like Bill Terry, who came from squalor, Leonard didn’t have much growing up in North Carolina, and things got tougher when his father died from the Spanish Flu when Buck was 11 years old. Buck had to quit school and take several jobs to help the family. But Leonard was diligent and smart. He shined shoes at the train station during the day, and went to night school to get his GED. He latched on with a team when a friend who worked at the railroad asked him to fill in for a missing player, and with a powerful left-handed stroke, Buck quickly earned a place on the roster. Like Terry, Leonard was a late bloomer: he didn’t play his first professional baseball game until he was 25 years old, for Portsmouth. Within two years he was a batting champion in the top negro professional league.

Member of the Great Homestead Grays

Leonard’s halcyon days were as a member of the Homestead Grays, a team that was started by a group of black steelworkers outside Pittsburgh. The manager was Cumberland Posey, who became a second father to Buck, teaching him how to play the game, and also showing the southerner how to navigate the city life and travel that went with being a pro ballplayer. Quickly, with Leonard as the cleanup hitter, the Grays came to dominate the Negro National League. 

From 1937 through 1945, the Grays won nine consecutive pennants, a record unequalled in major league baseball. Connie Mack’s Athletics never did it, John McGraw and his Giants never did it and the Yankees never won that many flags in a row either. The Grays biggest weapons were the bats of their 3-4 hitters, Josh Gibson and Leonard, who fans dubbed “The Thunder Twins.” Other future Hall of Famers who played on the Grays included center fielder Cool Papa Bell, third baseman Jud Wilson, and pitcher/outfielder Ray Brown. In addition to his three home run titles and a batting title, Buck led the NNL in RBI three times, in triples three times, in doubles twice, and in slugging three times. His dangerous left-handed bat was a perfect counter to the powerful right-handed threat posed by Gibson.

As his fame grew and his salary increased to make him the highest-paid player in the negro leagues, Leonard maintained a steady temperament. He was named captain of the Grays, for whom he played for his entire career, 14 seasons. More than once, Leonard and a few of his teammates were approached by scouts who hoped to break the color barrier, but nothing ever came of it while MLB commissioner Kenesaw Landis was alive. A year after Jackie Robinson finally broke the barrier, the St. Louis Browns offered 40-year old Leonard a contract, but Buck declined, stating “I’m too old for that now.”

Greatest Negro Leagues First Baseman

Leonard is clearly the greatest first baseman in the history of the negro leagues. He played when teams and the circuits were not stable, and his association with one team is unusual. He became an icon among black fans in Pittsburgh and Washington D.C. (the Grays split their home games between Forbes Field and Griffith Stadium). His ranking here may be low, because many who saw him play felt he was on par with the great first basemen in the white major leagues, like Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx.

“Buck Leonard was the equal of any first baseman who ever lived,” negro leagues outfielder Monte Irvin said. “If he had gotten the chance to play in the major leagues, they might have called Lou Gehrig the white Buck Leonard.”

Leonard was never bitter about not getting the chance to compete against white players. He made decent money playing in the negro leagues, and he was able to take care of himself and his family. He was a Christian man who rarely showed any emotion on the field, and even when he was team captain he refrained from questioning the decisions of the umpire. He never complained or whined about the circumstances of his life. In his era, it didn’t make any sense for a black man to scream about injustice, because no one listened anyway.  

“I wasn’t in favor of too much agitating toward opening the doors of white organized baseball,” Leonard said. “But I let them know that I would be willing to join up if the chance was available. I told them that if I did get the opportunity I would not desire to socialize with the white players after I was through playing the games and that I would be content to find a respectable hotel for coloreds to stay in. You know, if they don’t want you in a place, I don’t believe you ought to go there.”

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